Stags and Hens

Willy Russell
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2006)

Publicity photo

Gwenda Hughes will be a tricky act to follow. She's only the second artistic director in the New Vic's history and she steps down at the end of the year after nine years in the job. For Stags and Hens she's assembled a talented cast who've all worked in this theatre before and gel superbly. The result is a stylish, near-perfect production.

Willy Russell's play, set in the mid 1970s and featuring two groups celebrating their friends' forthcoming marriage, could potentially be dated today. Gone is the era of the conventional discotheque that characterised the decade. So too are £65 suits from Hepworths which make you look trendy. While those references hark back to a previous age, the play is still fresh because Russell explores relationship problems that are timeless.

The action is set in a run-down club chosen by Linda because she wants to dance to a live band as well as a disco. But unbeknown to her, fiancé Dave who's already legless and his mates turn up at the same venue. If the couple see each other on the night before they walk up the aisle, their marriage will be doomed . . .

Hughes's production is at various times funny, poignant, tender and sad. Presenting it in the round - the New Vic was Europe's first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round - might have had its problems but designer Lis Evans has come up with a split stage with ladies and gents toilets on either side which adds to the authenticity.

There are admirable performances from all of the cast, especially Marianne March as raunchy Bernadette who's looking for a one-night stand to help her forget the inadequacies of her husband; Fiona Dunn as Linda who is especially touching when she expresses doubts about married life; and Andrew Grose as Eddy, the hard-nosed, brutal football-team captain who's very protective of his friends.

Grose was last seen at the New Vic playing Tony, the new neighbour, in Abigail's Party. This is a similar role although Grose is able to bring out more nastiness as Eddy, the man no one dares to cross.

Also in Abigail's Party was Alison Darling who gave a stunning interpretation of Angela the nurse. In Stags and Hens she plays dizzy Maureen who's led a sheltered life and is prone to bursting into tears at the slightest problem - until she's downed several brandy and Babychams. It's another superlative performance by Darling.

Another actor who's familiar to New Vic audiences is Joseph Raishbrook. He was particularly impressive in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as the stammering Billy Bibbit. Here he's just right for the part of Robbie, the swaggering, brash trendsetter who's not as confident as he appears.

And Michael Hugo does a commendable job as Billy the intellectually challenged guy who ends up with women that no one else would even look at.

The only aspect of the production I found strange was the lack of music in the background. There wasn't the usual hum of muffled music that you can hear in most nightclub toilets. The only time you can tell there's any life in the club is when someone opens the door to the dance floor. Occasionally this means there's no atmosphere on stage. But that doesn't spoil what is essentially an engrossing evening.

Theresa Heskins is to take over from Gwenda Hughes at the New Vic. On the evidence of Stags and Hens, Heskins has a clear idea of the quality she'll have to emulate.

"Stags and Hens" continues until August 12th

Reviewer: Steve Orme